In our everyday life, we see and experience many things. For example, you can feel the gadget you are holding now, the table or chairs in your living room, your coffee mug, so on so forth. We know, from high school , that every one of those objects is made of atoms, and the sum of the billions of atoms (made of protons, neutrons and electrons) in that, let’s say, table, account for the overall mass of the table. I hope I didn’t confuse you already.
But what if I told you, that the atom, or to be more specific, the subatomic particles that make up an atom actually had, zero mass. Zip. Nada. Nil. Zero. Those protons, neutrons or electrons were massless particles. Then how can any object possibly have any weight?!
Since I may have just obliterated everything you seem to think you know about the framework of reality, I really should make it up to you by telling you what is really going on. One may console himself by saying, “It’s all God, I’m telling you.” but according to downright science it’s the god particle, also known as the Higgs Boson, that gives any particle its mass. I will be referring to this particle with the latter name, since the other name strikes many religious beliefs.
Before we go on to understand what is the Higgs Boson (funny name, I agree), you are going to have to completely discard what you think you know about the universe.
We all have been taught that electrons, protons, neutrons, photons etc are particles. But this is not true. They are all fields. Difficult to understand right? Electrons, for example, are simply vibrations in the electron field that is in the universe. Protons, made of quarks, are vibrations in the quark field that is in the universe. If you still can’t understand, just imagine a still ocean and suddenly a wave passes over it. The ocean refers to the field and the wave refers to the particle of that field. The world is actually made of fields, but our limited observations cannot perceive that, so we just see it as particles instead. Particles have a location, but fields fill space.
Alright, now that that’s settled, I am gonna introduce you to 4 different forces that you can detect in a nucleus. There are long-range forces, such as gravity and electromagnetism, which have effects that can be perceived at infinite distance (i.e. they act over long distances). The other are short-range forces, which are the strong and weak nuclear forces, which have effects that are limited or constrained (opposite of long-range forces). To give you more context about these forces, electromagnetism acts between electrons and nucleus (binding the atom), gravity holds all atoms together, strong nuclear force binds the quarks in the nucleus together (the whole up and down circles you see in the picture are quarks), and weak nuclear force binds the proton and neutron together.
The first question that pops into your head is probably, why can’t weak and strong nuclear force be long range forces? What is stopping them?
Now each of these forces have a particle that carries its force. Like, gluons carry strong nuclear force, electromagnetism is carried by photons, weak nuclear force is carried by W and Z bosons (bosons are just particles which carry either force or energy) and gravitational force is carried by gravitons (this last one isn’t fully proved yet).
So you now know the carriers of these four fundemental forces. Now let’s get back to the question. The photons and gravitons, carriers of the long-distance forces, are massless, and so move at the speed of light and are not affected by time (i.e. they do not evolve with time by changing their spin so they maintain the same spin). The gluons and W and Z bosons, the weak nuclear forces, are not massless, rather they are quite large and continuously change their spin, evolving with time, hence are affected by time.
You may just think that this is the way things are, nothing much here. But don’t get complacent. Think a bit further. Question it. If I told you all particles are actually massless, I would puzzle you again right? That is the truth. So what is changing the masses of those carriers? Why do some remain massless, and why do other gain mass? Is there some sort of magic happening? Or is it just an act of God?
*suspenseful music plays*
It’s the Higgs Boson
I don’t want to tire you out too soon. So the magic of the Higgs Boson and its field will be explored in my next blog post. Stay tuned for that. That’s where all the real fun is!
Just remember that you and I would be pure vacuum, nothing at all, with no mass, purely meaningless, without the Higgs field.
Without it, life as we know it, and the universe as we see it, would not exist at all.